Parenting in the Digital Realm – Gaining Control over Needs and Wants


When children are entirely immersed in the digital realm, they forget the difference between want and need. Result: wanting eats away at the vitals. When ordinary wanting becomes need something valuable in us is being switched off. “ from Digital Inferno

Try this: exploring need and want

Explore the difference between want and need. Share examples of real need in the world: hunger and famine, someone in need of a life-saving operation, people without a roof over their heads. You might look at some pictures together in a book or online. Or watch a film. Need is deep, often life or death.

We can acknowledge a child’s strong sense of want but helping him recognise what need really looks like helps him to make an important distinction. It restrains wanting which holds out for unrealistic dreams, to make space for the serious sense of wanting, as in study, career and personal development. This fosters the realisation that we have a life without all of our wants being fulfilled.

The ability to separate need from want at will is a valuable life skill. Do you really need to answer that call? Really? What happens if you are talking to someone in a room and she needs you to listen to her as your friend? The phone rings. It’s someone who said they’d call you back to confirm arrangements for the evening. The person on the phone wants your attention. The person in front of you wants your attention. Can you decide whether there is a need here that is greater than the want?

You observe your friend for a moment. Her look is intense. Behind the eye contact you feel an urgency and a genuine need for you to be giving her the gift of full attention right there and then. The person calling wants to speak with you but they don’t need to. You decide; The call can wait for half an hour. There is a greater need here. You don’t reach for the phone. Instead you reach out with your listening to the person before you. Looking back on that moment later, you feel energised, strengthened by it. It’s like you won a tiny piece of yourself back from the digital inferno.

Wanting something for another, really and truly, is a beautiful human motive. If wanting and getting for oneself becomes the default setting at a young age it makes children cold, clever and manipulative. When this occurs it replaces wanting something for others with calculating self-interest. The child really can learn that our wants fit into a wider picture of human wants and that making the effort comes before real satisfaction. Toddlers are too young to be constantly wanting and getting, and their powerful will needs to be guided by the parent. The child who learns to love the protective guiding authority of the parent will eventually develop self control and see the wider picture. It will develop the habit of wanting not as a single self alone but as a member of a family, a community and the world at large. And most likely, one day, as a selfless parent. “ From Digital Inferno

It can be easier to identify a need in another, where that need is greater than our want to get digitally distracted from it. Most of us want to serve those we love and value best, so an instinctive duty enables us to prioritise someone’s need over our personal want.

It can be harder to tell the difference between one of our own “wants” and contrast it with a “need”. A need is usually also a want (though not always) but a want is not always a need. When we are digitally addicted, we nearly always confuse want and need. In fact they become one and the same thing.

One way to determine whether a want is not really a need is to gently inquire into it: what greater good is served by satisfying this want? Who really benefits? If reading a text and suddenly switching attention away from my son who is telling me about something that happened at school simply satisfies my curiosity, or lets me know the latest in an ongoing saga, but the price is that my son feels ignored or undervalued, then that price may be too high. My child has a need for me to value him by giving him my attention when he’s telling things that he needs to tell me. Is my want really greater than that? Do I really need to check that text, right then, right now? Or can it wait ten minutes? Usually, the need before me will be greater and more precious than the digitally inspired “want”? Why is that? It is no always so, but usually is so when it concerns friends, loved ones, social duties and tasks. Community and caring rarely grows from distraction and detachment. It comes from immersion and connection. And our eyes are simply not designed to look in two different places at once. When digital glasses come along and information is projected into space in ways that can’t be seen by the person physically before us, we’ll have a sense that the person wearing the glasses has zoned out, gone “off”, even as they nod madly at us.

When you meet a need, you serve the other and confirm your own ability to respond. When you prioritise a want over a need, you tend to get a short term, immediate hit, but conscience, deeper down, gets bashed. So, of course, some people have quickly adapted, embracing coldness, automatic uncaring response and indifference. Indifference becomes the new skill, the ability to ignore a need or simply downgrade it to a competing want. Then it simply becomes a battle of wants which you choose to win.

So, back to stories from our own lives where meeting a need over a want had a beneficial outcome. Reminding our kids that there is a difference. Awakening them to social responsibility, giving them a chance to contribute in communities where we all muck in together; all of these basic things can strengthen the will to distinguish between want and need.

We can also all agree as a family to check in with each other when the phone rings or vibrates with a text. Do I really need to check that or answer right now? What happens if I finish the conversation or task before me physically?

Children can discover that delaying the immediate gratification of satisfying the “respond want” can sharpen their instincts in relation to really knowing when and how they need to respond physically or digitally. The proverb: Meet the need, then check if the want is the same or has changed or disappeared.

The result? More self-awareness and more confidence in the physical and the digital realm. We step through the inferno, less blown about why its winds and forces.

About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

Posted on September 18, 2014, in Key themes. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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